Catherine Offord in The Scientist:
Daisy Fancourt was at her home in Surrey in southeast England when the UK government formally announced a nationwide lockdown. Speaking in a televised address on March 23, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a suite of measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, including closing public spaces and requiring people to stay home except for exercise and essential tasks. For Fancourt, an epidemiologist at University College London (UCL), the announcement meant more than just a change to her daily life. It was the starting gun for a huge study, weeks in the planning, that would investigate the effects of enforced isolation and other pandemic-associated changes on the British public.
In more normal times, Fancourt and her colleagues study how social factors such as isolation influence mental and physical health. Before Johnson’s late-March announcement, the team had been watching as Italy, and subsequently other countries in Europe, began closing down public spaces and enforcing restrictions on people’s movements. They realized it wouldn’t be long before the UK followed suit. “We felt we had to start immediately collecting data,” Fancourt says. She and her colleagues rapidly laid the groundwork for a study that would track some of the effects of lockdown in real time. Between March 24 and the middle of June, the study had recruited more than 70,000 participants to fill out weekly online surveys, and in some cases answer questions in telephone interviews, about wellbeing, mental health, and coping strategies.
This project and others like it underway in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere aim to complement a broader literature on how changes in people’s interactions with those around them influence their biology. Even before COVID-19 began its global spread, millions of people were already what researchers consider to be socially isolated—separated from society, with few personal relationships and little communication with the outside world. According to European Union statistics, more than 7 percent of residents say they meet up with friends or relatives less than once a year. Surveys in the UK, meanwhile, show that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone.